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“White Man’s Burden”

Lee Glazer
Date Published: 
October 01, 2006
    Emily Y. Washington has been a community activist, public school advocate, and teacher in the Washington, DC Public schools for more than 35 years. In 1999, she was the first Black woman to be awarded the George Olmsted Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching from Williams College. Emily Y. Washington discusses the racism and ruling class interests at work in charter schools in this interview with Lee Glazer, one of the founders of the Save Our Schools Coalition and the mother of three children in the DC public school system.

Lee Glazer: You’ve described charter school proliferation in Washington, DC, as a “scourge” and “a dangerous exercise in social engineering.” Could you elaborate?

Emily Y. Washington: The crack cocaine scourge, which destabilized many, many neighborhoods, was swift and deadly. I can’t imagine anyone in this city who is an African American not knowing someone who was a victim. Why is charter proliferation comparable? Well, education either uplifts or it confines one to life in the margins of society. So the charter school movement, in that its sole purpose is money making and the destruction of the public education system, will have a far more deadly impact than drugs. Schools like KIPP, SEED, and the Friendship Edison Project, the big corporate-backed charters, mostly white-run, are absolutely deadly. These schools put out something like a third of their kids every year, which causes even more problems for the DC Public Schools, because now we have a group of young people who have been excluded from the charter schools and who come back into the public schools greatly behind.

LG: Charter schools in DC are nonprofits. Can you elaborate on your assertion that they are about making money?

EYW: We must have a new definition of nonprofit. Look at schools like Maya Angelou or SEED or KIPP—all run by foundations that are backed by venture philanthropists who have a huge say in how the schools are run. Maya Angelou Public Charter School is run by the See Forever Foundation, which is backed by Venture Philanthropy Partners [which also backs SEED and Friendship Edison; see Basav Sen, “Who’s Behind the Charter School Movement,” and accompanying “Corporate Players” chart.]. These venture funds are the paymasters of brand name charter school expansion here and elsewhere. Also, these foundations can even set up for-profit subsidiaries, and if investors decide to pull out of the foundation, they’ll still have the for-profit interests.

LG: Is this the so-called “exit strategy” I’ve seen discussed on venture philanthropy websites in which investors may actually conceive of the “nonprofit” charter school as a way of supplying public capital to other private investments?

EYW: Yes, and because we’re the nation’s capital, it portends to inform what is to happen in the rest of the nation regarding public education. Look at New Orleans. Katrina was just a perfect opportunity to wipe out public education as we know it. It’s worse than post-Reconstruction.

LG: Education has always been about power—and has only rarely been about challenging the status quo. Why do you believe charters contribute to this in a more direct way than traditional public schools?

EYW: The thing about traditional public education is that without it, there’s no hope of ever having an ideal society or one that even speaks to idealism, because there will be no context whatsoever for people to have shared experiences. Public education is the only venue that would allow a child whose parents are both doctors to sit next to a little girl who might be the daughter of a single parent who, just by luck, is able to go into a school where [affluent] people didn’t remove their kids. We see so few examples of that now.

LG: Wouldn’t a charter advocate say that they can’t discriminate based on race or income? That they are about providing “choice” to underserved minorities?

EYW: The whole notion of charter schools, in this city at least, has been informed by the imperialist notion of a “white man’s burden”—we need to “save” the unfortunates, containing them in institutions where we can either make them model their behavior according to what’s deemed acceptable or we can cast them out. Public schools can’t do that. They can’t superimpose that single notion of identity, because people come from too many walks of life.

LG: KIPP [a national charter chain with three schools in DC and plans for continued expansion] is often touted by politicians, philanthropists, and even some educators as a model that “works” for low-income children of color. What do you make of this?

EYW: KIPP works in the sense that it’s a classical example of social engineering, and I suppose that’s why it’s so heavily supported by corporate America. The KIPP model is one that says to a child of color: “you have deficits, there’s something wrong with you, and the public schools are only reinforcing them. We can fix you, but you have to conform to a robotic type of behavior; you have to wear a mask.” At KIPP, they don’t say that you should love yourself or your family or community. They say: “you master Standard English so you can join mainstream society—not question it.” Even in slavery, slaves could create their own culture, go off and create different chants, come up with a hoodwinking scheme to get “massa.” These kids are not equipped for that kind of subversive sophistication, and they’ll never get it, because once they’ve been KIPPNOTIZED, they’re forever consigned to regimentation in and by society.

Then there’s the popularity of KIPP with some middle-class Black people. Their children come to school with some notion of where they’re headed and what they want to be, and they see KIPP as a way to get there.

LG: So they’ll turn out to be the Condoleezza Rices of the future?

EYW: Yes, the “good Negroes.” That’s what happens to a certain type of KIPP student, and that may be what’s driving KIPP’s reputation for being a very good school. The real prize for KIPP is to capture middle class children of color and use them as models of acceptance, while consigning the majority of those students to being nothing and filled with nothingness.

LG: Can you describe a KIPP School?

EYW: Last winter I visited the newly established KIPP-AIM in Southeast Washington unannounced. I went into a fifth grade science classroom with 29 students, all Black. I seated myself at a table with a young man wearing a badge. On the opposite side of the room was another table where two other young men were also wearing badges. I later learned that they were “on the bench.” When I asked the young man what that meant, he said, “It means I won’t get a paycheck.” I later learned that at KIPP students are rewarded for acceptable behavior with “KIPP Cash.”

What I saw generally was a kind of malaise, where at least a third of the children were not engaged. They were all strictly seated at tables, and it was almost as if they were unable to move. There was a certain kind of aura that suggested that the kids were in an encampment, a place where they were going through the motions, and the motions were very much defined. In a classroom where there’s intellectual engagement and constructive discussion, the kids can’t resist blurting out, there is a jubilance. There was none of that. It was a very ordered kind of regimentation that was in a militaristic mode or a prison mode. Of course, there is a school of thought that says, well isn’t that better than acting like a thug? That with black children, it has to be either/ or, and that “good behavior” has to be superimposed.

LG: You’ve alluded to an ideal vision that has always been part of the best thinking about public education. How can we work to create these ideal schools, schools that will liberate, not domesticate, our children?

EYW: We had the Civil Rights Movement, but we’ve never had a comparable movement for education for all people in this country, because it’s the great equalizer. The only way to bring about quality education that is indeed a public education is to have a new civic culture, a collective wisdom that will ensure that every child leaves school able to read, write, perform, do those things that lead to a job, to higher education, or to a trade. Let’s be clear: those things used to exist in the public schools, but they’ve been systematically dismantled so that the charter school movement could take hold here. And that’s by design. It makes good and well-intentioned parents, of any color or caste, have to seek out the best opportunities for their own children. It compromises everyone. For the left to fend for themselves, good people will be forced to abandon causes and accept the status quo.